Commentary: A racket like no other

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Hot off the press: Another withering attack on animal agriculture and the impact modern meat production has on our economy and our lifestyles. Its assault may be accurate, but is it fair?

One is a long list of horror stories about animal agriculture was recently published, this tome titled, “The Meat Racket.” It’s written by an investigative journalist named Christopher Leonard, and you don’t need me to provide a synopsis of the expose he spends nearly 400 pages delivering.

He profiles Tyson Foods, in particular, as a pioneer in the reinvention of poultry production over the last 40 years, noting that the efficiencies generated by the company’s business model — the implementation of genetics, feeding and management systems — provided both affordability and availability of animal foods unprecedented in the American experience.

I give Leonard credit for that. Most muckrakers skip over the part of their historical overview that details why whichever mega-firm they’re bashing managed to dominate their competitors.

Because make no mistake: Any giant corporation — and that includes the current behemoths like Apple, Google and Facebook — didn’t start out dominating anything. In almost all cases, they came up with a better mousetrap and then leveraged the advantages and/or benefits their products and their operational model provided into market dominance. A process that typically takes decades of hard work and risk-taking.

That’s why the evil organization eventually becomes so big (and “bad!”) that someone gets to write a book demonizing the fallout that inevitably occurs when any market sector is controlled by a couple behemoths.

In The Meat Racket, Leonard goes full Upton Sinclair in comparing the current structure of meatpacking and poultry processing with the “Meat Trust” that ruled the industry a century ago. As a straight-up business analysis, there are indeed parallels, but it’s also about the easiest book to write in 21st century America when you start with a premise of: “Look — Big, Bad Business has taken over (fill in of name of business sector).”

And there are plenty of examples of exactly such a development: Energy, telecom, banking, media, entertainment. The list of business sectors dominated by a handful of mega-corporations is lengthy. How about health care? Can anyone plausibly argue that the power of the pharmaceutical giants or the health insurance oligarchy is beneficial — or even benign — for consumers?

Or perhaps a better question is whether the “chickenization of American farming,” as Leonard phrased it, is any worse than the aftershocks of top-heavy consolidation in any other industry that provides essential products and services upon which we depend?

Tolerating the trade-off

The answer to that question is “complicated,” as politicians love to say. But distilled down, it’s actually pretty simple. Progress in our post-industrial society brings us undreamed-of benefits, along with far less pleasant problems. No matter where you look, an honest evaluation of modern lifestyles reveals a mixed bag of good and bad, pros and cons, advantages and disadvantages.

We can jump on a plane and travel cross-country or overseas within comfort and convenience unknown a couple generations ago. But getting to the airport, getting onto the plane and making one’s connections can be an unending nightmare.

Likewise, we can jump into our high-tech cars and trucks and travel pretty much anywhere we want to go, as long as it’s not across some big city’s freeway system, or anywhere during rush hour and we’re willing to accept the noise, congestion and pollution, not to mention the eyesore of exit ramp commercial strips, as part of the price tag such “freedom” imposes.

With food production, we enjoy a bounty and variety that humans have never before had, and that’s thanks in part to industrialization of agriculture that Leonard so adeptly lambastes. With that evolution comes some serious problems, to be sure, including one his book covers in detail: the damage done to America’s rural economy and the small-town social structures dragged down by its declining prosperity.

 

The decimation visible in many once-prominent rural regions is due to social and economic forces much greater than Tyson Foods’ vertical integration, of course. The mechanization of farming, the loss of manufacturing jobs and the expansion of educational and career opportunities for young people eager to leave behind farm life all have had a greater impact than anything Tyson or its competitors have put in place.

We live with the downsides of modern lifestyles, we accept the trade-offs that come with post-modern capitalism, or else we work to change the system the way it’s always been changed: But voting with our wallets.

That’s a trend that precedes Tyson Foods and one that will endure beyond any future legacy any dominant corporation might hope to create.

One last note: I’ll give Leonard props for including an honest profile of Don Tyson himself, which couldn’t have been easy to manage, given the incredibly low profile — for a Fortune 100 CEO — that he religiously maintained.

During an editorial tenure of more than 20 years, despite the fact that the magazines where I worked ran numerous cover stories on Tyson Foods, I only had a couple brief conversations with Don Tyson himself. No formal interviews; nothing on the record.

Heck, I had a lengthier one-on-one with Bill Clinton (before he was elected president, I must hasten to add) than I ever did with Don Tyson.

Tyson didn’t like talking about himself, and he took seriously his insistence on first-name familiarity throughout the organization — his trademark khaki shirt with “Don” embroidered on the breast pocket was no mere affectation. He deflected the credit for his company’s runaway success to others in the firm. All his life, he was an intensely private person, and in later years he spent a lot more time onboard his sea-going yacht (actually, a converted fishing trawler) than he did in the boardroom or at headquarters.

As Leonard characterized him, “Don Tyson was a man born in rural poverty in the depths of the Great Depression. A small-town kid who inexplicably dreamed on a global scale and saw a future for himself that was impossibly larger than the world he knew. A man who also, somehow, managed to achieve that impossibly ambitious dream.”

That passage is but a throwaway paragraph floating on an ocean of condemnation, but at least Leonard acknowledged that there was a real person, a complex, flawed human being like the rest of us, at the helm of the corporate juggernaut.

I appreciate that small condescension because too often other business tycoons who are, in fact, serious SOBs — Steve Jobs comes to mind— are lionized because their industry is more glamorous or their public profiles more prominent, when in fact they were no less driven, no less ambitious, no less ruthless in pursuing market dominance than anyone in the meat industry.

In the end, Leonard opines that if corporate dominance of food production is to be reversed, the impetus must come from consumers themselves.

On that note, I can only say amen, brother.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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Steve Baker    
MO  |  March, 18, 2014 at 09:29 AM

Business isn't the threat. An abusive and corrupt federal government is sucking the entire economy and country dry. The 50% of the population that pays federal income tax, are paying for the 50% able bodied liberals that mooch from the rest of us. Many who work for a living are paying close to 50% of their income in taxes. Why is anyone concerned about a business when you are free to avoid patronizing said entity? Try not paying your taxes and watch the government threaten you with a gun in your face.

Dan Murphy    
Everett, Wash.  |  March, 18, 2014 at 02:56 PM

To be honest, Meat Racket focused most intently on the impact of Tyson's system on exactly the hard-working, tax-paying people to which you're referring. Many of the farmers who went deeply into debt to finance growout houses and equipment worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week for years -- and ended up bankrupt when poor quality chicks and/or feed decimated their production. At least if government is dragging you down, you have the opportunity to vote them out of office. When a business entity as dominant as Tyson is in back-country towns across Arkansas and elsewhere chokes the life out of your operation, you have zero recourse. That was the point the author was making. Business per se isn't bad, but when businesses in any vital sector -- like food -- get so big they're virtually untouchable, that can be a serious problem. And by the way, what I didn't mention is that a big factor in Tyson's ability to rapidly grow its vertically integrated model is the Farm Credit Administration's loan guarantee program that allowed small-town banks to underwrite six-figure loans to the farmers who joined Tyson's network. And if (and when) they defaulted, Uncle Sam picks up the tab. That represents a "handout" to a multi-billion dollar company that utterly dwarfs whatever assistance the 50% of low-income people ever get from government.


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